Management Misdemeanors: 10 Crimes Against Increased Volunteer Engagement

Unfortunately, you don't have to look too far to find organizations regularly committing management misdemeanors that get in the way of them engaging the volunteers they say are so important to them. Keep yourself out of jail by making sure your group isn't caught doing any of these common 10 crimes.

1.  Not asking at the onset
Hard to believe, but not being asked is still one of most common reasons people say they don't volunteer. I've long believed that membership applications for any organization should also ask "Check all of the following ways in which you would be interested in contributing to our efforts." Make it clear that when you join you are welcomed (expected) to contribute in some way that is consistent with your interests and availability.

2.  Asking only once a year
While some volunteer responsibilities probably do require a specific application and review timeframe, many do not, yet they are still swept up in the same volunteer ask.  My interest in contributing doesn't only come alive once a year, so neither should your ask. If there isn't a prominent "Volunteer Now" button on your organization's home page, you may be missing out.

3.  Not responding
 What's worse than not asking or asking only once a year? Not responding to people who say they want to contribute.  Shame on organizations who essentially smack down the hands of volunteers who have raised them. This is even more critical for organizations having chapters or components as other volunteers may be the ones tasked with responding to expressions of interest.

Before making the ask, make sure you have the necessary response infrastructure in place. In addition, invite a few prospects to beta test your process and offer you feedback.

4.  Weak online resources
Yes, please do spend an hour explaining how to fill out the travel expense reimbursement form after you made me give up a weekend to fly across the country for volunteer orientation ... not!

It is neither affordable nor preferable for every volunteer to come to an in-person training. Micro-volunteers in particular want easily accessed online training and support, but it also is valuable for anyone taking on more significant leadership positions in your organization.

Create a simple resource center organization by "how to" categories that reflect volunteer responsibilities and then provide short text narratives and accompanying slide decks or videos. Look to eHow or other similar sites as an example.

5.  No metrics for success
Hopefully your organization has qualified and quantified its goals for employee recruitment, development, and retention.  Are volunteers an integral part of your workforce? If so, you had better do the same for them.  Without clear success metrics for volunteer engagement, you can't develop tactics to achieve specific results. So obvious, but still so absent in so many organizations.

6.  Inadequate evaluation
Try this on for size: anyone who volunteers should evaluate their experience. How novel ... get feedback from those doing the work.  This should be the norm, not the exception, with the type and amount of feedback solicited scaled appropriately for the type of volunteer involvement individuals experienced.

Do include a few common questions/ratings across all evaluations, ones tied to the success metrics you've established. A generic one to include would be the NetPromoter question: would you recommend volunteering in our organization to others?

7.  No tracking of interests or contributions
I don't care if it is as simple as the old school technique of having my name on an index card with all of my volunteer contributions noted in pencil, you've got to track individual efforts. If your organization has a sophisticated association management system or customer relationship management software that you aren't also using to record volunteer contributions, you're actually committing a felony on this one.  Tracking should not only include what I've done, but also information I've shared with you that could be useful for future volunteer engagement invitations: my interests, my availability, my knowledge and experiences, my resource networks, et al.

8.  Insufficient feedback, appreciation, or recognition
If all you can afford to offer is a standard thank you email and a certificate at least make them the best damn generic feedback and appreciation I get all year, OK?  But you'll cultivate more individual commitment and loyalty by offering praise and recognition that is unique and specific whenever you can.

I've written before about an excellent American Society of Associations note sent to volunteers that combined shared appreciation (look what all of you helped us do) along with individual praise. Being able to do both is the gold standard to which we should all aspire.  The Leadership Challenge by Barry Posner and Kouzes lists "encouraging the heart" as one of the five practices of extraordinary leadership, so let's make sure we are doing more of it for more people and in more meaningful ways.

9.  Limited or limiting opportunities
Not every potential volunteer contribution in your organization rises to the level of serving on your profession's journal advisory board or a comparable responsibility that requires a limited number of individuals carefully screened to ensure the highest levels of knowledge and integrity. Be careful to not arbitrarily limit the number of people contributing to the success of your organization or the number of pathways they can take to being engaged. Some people probably want to ascend to your board of directors while others want to be involved as often as their hectic schedule can manage. We need both.

10.  Requiring membership before volunteering
I know this has long been the accepted path in so many organizations: join, then get involved. Much of the research on Millennials suggests that the gateway to their membership may first come through a meaningful volunteer/service experience with your organization. Why not try that approach for anyone, regardless of their generational cohort: "bait" us by connecting us to other professionals and involving us in some work we find meaningful.  Doing so might "hook" us so that we want to hang around for more as a member.


To help keep you and your colleagues out of jail, I've created a group exercise and simple one-page self-assessment of these 10 crimes. Download it in PDF form here.

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